In May 2014, he packed up his Subaru Forester and drove 2,000 miles to Flagstaff, Ariz., for an adventure. There was no job or internship waiting for him out west. There were no family, no friends and no fellow cross-country runners either.
But Flagstaff does have a mountain called Humphreys Peak. The elevation is 12,633 feet — the highest natural point in Arizona.
Undaunted and unabashed, Mulherin ran the mountain trails and even climbed rocks without a rope. Then he traveled to the Grand Canyon. Next, he was off to Utah to run and climb Zion Canyon and Moab Canyon. His last stop was in Boulder, Colo., where he rendezvoused with fellow North Carolina cross-country runners.
To him, climbing the mountains and canyons was a mental game. Then that mental game turned into a challenge.
And now, that challenge has turned into a career goal — to become a world-class mountaineer.
Mulherin has always pushed himself to take the next step.
Around the age of 10, he played club soccer, but he was too fast for the other kids. So naturally, he switched to cross-country.
At Page High School in Greensboro, he exhausted all the math classes, so he transferred to the N.C. School of Science and Math to take college-level courses.
In 2011, his cross-country team won the 1A NCHSAA state title. He came in first place by a margin of 15 seconds. A year later, he accepted a spot on the UNC cross-country team to compete against other Division I schools.
“He’s never really satisfied, that’s for sure,” said Steve Mulherin, Stephen’s father. “The bigger the objective, the happier he is. He latches onto something, and he goes for it.”
But for Stephen Mulherin, there has been no greater test than climbing a mountain.
“In mountains, that’s where you can go to get exhausted — mentally and physically exhausted,” he said. “The altitude, less oxygen up there, it’s steep, and you can pass out real easily. It’s a mental game. It’s hard-core and intense. You can really push your limits in the mountains.”
During the 2014 adventure, Stephen Mulherin and his teammates climbed 14,259-foot Longs Peak in Boulder, Colo.
Everyone had trouble keeping pace with him, including redshirt junior Mitch Mcleod.
“We didn’t sleep very much,” said Mcleod, remembering his time on the mountain. “(Mulherin) crushed me at the end. I didn’t quite get to the top. I threw up and had to lie there for a while.”
The senior is committed to keeping the mountain man persona. Over the past four months, he has grown a thick, scraggly beard. He brushes it with a bamboo comb each morning.
His reasoning is simple: People respect you more with a beard. And despite growing the facial hair during the warmest part of the year, he is content with his decision.
“Would you rather shave every day or be hot every now and then?” he said with a chuckle.
But his dedication to becoming a mountaineer is not limited to the unkempt beard. While climbing and running in Arizona, Utah and Colorado, Mulherin lived in his car and ate sandwiches of dry ramen noodles, Nutella and peanut butter.
“Living in my car is a result of wanting to be a good climber,” he said. “I think it’s way more comfortable than living in a house. You sleep wherever you want. You don’t have to pay rent or sign a lease. The simpler you make things, the more elegant and beautiful they become.”
But Mulherin wasn’t satisfied. There were bigger tests ahead.
Wheels to Wyoming
This past summer, Mulherin drove to Jackson Hole, Wyo. — about 2,000 miles away — to climb the nearly 14,000-foot Grand Teton, the highest point of the Teton Range, which he refers to as the “baddest mountains in the lower 48 (states).”
His goal was to get the fastest known time on the Grand Teton trail. But when he arrived, the mountain was covered in snow. He had to wait a month for conditions to improve. While he was in Wyoming, he managed to get a job at Lewis & Clark River Expeditions, a place that runs whitewater rafting trips along the Snake River.
This time around, he didn’t live in his car. Instead, he lived in Lewis & Clark’s boathouse.
“It’s the mom-and-pop of whitewater rafting,” he said. “Everyone was really close, not a lot of employees. It really worked out for me.”
But Mulherin couldn’t remain stationary. He discovered the U.S. Mountain Running National Championships in Bend, Ore., almost 11 hours away from his location in Wyoming — another extreme challenge.
He drove to Oregon, entered the Nike-sponsored race and finished fourth in the collegiate division. He even won $400 for his effort.
Mulherin traveled back to Wyoming, brimming with confidence, and prepared to face the Grand Teton.
Although he didn’t set the record, he did set the third-fastest time — 3 hours and 34 seconds.
His younger brother Sean Mulherin visited him a week before the accomplishment. He was amazed by his brother’s commitment.
“Almost every week, he would sprint up the Grand Tetons,” Sean Mulherin said. “You’re supposed to do it with ropes and all this gear, but he would just run by all those guys and make them look bad with just his running shorts and his ripped-up T-shirt.”
But the senior’s aggressive mindset isn’t solely for mountain running. No matter what he wears, Stephen Mulherin keeps the same approach. His years donning a blue and white cross-country uniform are no exception.
Tested as a Tar Heel
Mulherin’s passion for the mountains hasn’t detracted from his cross-country career at UNC.
As a sophomore, he placed second at the Joe Hilton Cross Country Invitational and recorded an 8-kilometer race personal record of 25 minutes and 28 seconds in the Virginia Panorama Farms Invitational.
Then in 2014 — after his adventures in Arizona, Utah and Colorado — he finished 25th at the ACC Cross Country Championships and 85th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships.
“Stephen is always looking to challenge himself,” assistant coach Logan Roberts said. “He lines up in the race to discover who can hurt more than him.”
For the 2015 season, Mulherin’s individual goal is to become an All-American — an expectation almost as high as the mountains he climbs.
As for Stephen Mulherin’s career goal to become a mountaineer, his father, Steve, does have concerns about his son’s safety and well-being. But he will continue to support him.
Steve Mulherin and everyone else realize that once his son sets his mind on something, he cannot be denied.
There is no peak high enough to keep him away from his dream.
“I want to be the biggest and baddest dude who has ever been on a mountain,” Stephen Mulherin said. “I know what I wanna do, and I’m going to do it.”